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NSRC 2020

NewSpace panel
Brett Alexander discusses the work of the Personal Spaceflight Federation during a panel session of the NewSpace 2007 conference on July 20 while Bob Benzon (left) and Kelly Alton look on. (credit: J. Foust)

Preparing for the worst

“Space transportation is inherently risky.” Those words are, quite literally, the law of the land in the United States, part of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. Few people would dispute that statement, given that spaceflight, commercial or otherwise, is still in its relative infancy. However, it’s easy to forget that when one gets caught up in the hoopla and hype that’s often associated with space tourism and the ventures seeking to serve that emerging market.

Last Thursday’s tragic accident in Mojave—a test stand explosion that claimed the lives of three Scaled Composites employees and seriously injured three others—serves as a sobering reminder that this field is indeed “inherently risky”. While more of an industrial rather than an aerospace accident, it does jolt an industry that has primarily focused on building vehicles, raising money, and enhancing its public profile in the process. The long-term implications of this particular accident are, at this early stage, too early to determine, but given the lack of mainstream media attention outside of local and industry circles, there is at least so far no evidence of a strong negative reaction from the public to this tragedy.

After an accident “you’re in for a very, very interesting 24 hours, and then you’re in for a lot of work for up to two years after that,” advised Bon Benzon of NTSB.

This incident, though, raises a broader question: what happens when—and it is a matter of when, not if—there is an actual spaceflight accident involving the loss of the vehicle and/or its passengers? How will companies, investigators, insurers, and others respond to such an accident? Some fear that an accident, depending on the circumstances, could jeopardize the entire nascent personal spaceflight industry. As a panel of experts explained during a session of the NewSpace 2007 conference in Arlington, Virginia earlier this month, such scenarios have been on their minds long before recent events.

The investigation

In the event of an accident, the investigation to determine the cause begins almost immediately and can be lengthy. “You’re in for a very, very interesting 24 hours, and then you’re in for a lot of work for up to two years after that,” advised Bon Benzon, investigator in chief at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), who has worked on investigations as diverse as the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the loss of the shuttle Columbia.

What would happen, he explained, is that a team of NTSB investigators, trained in a variety of disciplines including commercial space, would arrive at the accident site within six to eight hours. They would perform an immediate site survey to collect any evidence that might otherwise be lost. The investigators would then start working with representatives of all the companies involved, including not just the operator and manufacturer but also the providers of key subsystems like engines, splitting up into teams to examine various aspects of the accident.

Benzon acknowledged that such manpower-intensive investigations can be difficult for companies that are relatively small, but emphasized their importance. “We’re going to need your expertise to figure out what happened,” he said. “It’s going to be a team effort. We cannot do this by ourselves.”

The investigation would continue on site for a couple of weeks, “until we’re tired of looking at the wreckage,” he said. Investigators then return home to work on reports. About six months after the accident there would likely be a public hearing similar to a Congressional hearing but “not nearly as controversial, not nearly as mean-spirited,” he said. Finally, about a year and a half to two years after the accident, investigators finish their report on the accident and vote on the probable cause of the accident as well as recommendations to prevent similar accidents from happening again.

While it might seem like that such investigations could turn adversarial, pitting the company against the government, Benzon said it’s not his intent to be judgmental about the company, only to understand the accident itself. “We pride ourselves in our neutrality,” he said. “We’re not out to get you.”

Insurance and risk management

Like the NTSB, insurance companies respond quickly to an accident, sending claims adjusters to the site of the accident within hours, said Kelly Alton, an aerospace insurance broker with United Risk Solutions. Planning for such an event, though, needs to begin long before, by providing the insurer with as much information as possible about the vehicle to avoid any gray areas in the policy that could affect a claim.

“The courts will enforce waivers if the judge and jury conclude if the person signing it, in this case the spaceflight participant, really did understand and appreciate the risks involved, and if the industry really is acknowledged as being risky,” said Griffith.

The insurance itself for commercial passenger spacecraft, Alton said, is likely going to be a hybrid of existing aviation and space insurance. “I think there’s a big debate out there right now on how these policies for the space tourism industry are going to be written: is it going to be an aviation policy, is it going to be a space policy,” he said. “People are probably too overly concerned about how that’s going to be put together.” Companies are likely going to end up with insurers that handle both aviation and space risks, and the policies are going to be amalgams of the two types of insurance, with exclusions and endorsements specific to the vehicle.

A broader type of risk management goes beyond insurance to how the industry is perceived by the general public. “I think it’s very important from a company perspective and an industry perspective that we prepare the public and all of the stakeholders, including government agencies and the Congress, that we all recognize that this is a risky industry,” said Brett Alexander, president of the Personal Spaceflight Federation (PSF).

Alexander said that PSF is getting ready to kick off a study in cooperation with the National Space Society to understand what contingency plans need to be in place for the industry as a whole in the event of an accident. That study will look at several facets of the issue, including the current status of the industry, the roles of government agencies like the NTSB in the event of an accident, insurance and liability issues, and coordination with federal agencies.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the industry is getting sued out of existence by the families of those killed in the accident. Liability waivers, where spaceflight participants (the official term for people who fly on commercial spacecraft that are not members of the crew) give up their right to sue, are one solution, but many are openly skeptical about their effectiveness in preventing lawsuits. “I am more optimistic about the enforceability of waivers,” said Doug Griffith, an aviation and spaceflight attorney. “The courts will enforce waivers if the judge and jury conclude if the person signing it, in this case the spaceflight participant, really did understand and appreciate the risks involved, and if the industry really is acknowledged as being risky.”

In some states, though, such as Virginia, waivers simply aren’t enforceable at all. Earlier this year, though, that state, with the support of the PSF, passed legislation that provided legal immunity for spaceflight operators. “We are working to turn that into model legislation that we can take to other states,” said Alexander.

However, he added, “a liability bill is not the end all. What you have to have is multiple layers, measures of protection, to protect those companies involved in the industry.” The most important layer of protection, though, may be a culture of safety at each individual company. “It’s important for the companies and the industry overall that everyone is paying the best attention that they can to safety and using best practices.”

“I certainly hope this industry isn’t shut down based on one accident by one company,” said Alexander.

Getting “informed consent”, as specified in the 2004 act, from spaceflight participants is a challenge that another set of panelists took on during the conference. During the discussion, Rick Tumlinson suggested videotaping people’s informed consent statements. “When there is an accident, the trial in the courtroom is going to be one thing. The real trial is going to occur on CNN and YouTube and Fox,” he said. Videos would provide the opportunity for people to not only give their informed consent but also provide a statement that could be important in any public debate about the future of the industry after an accident.

“I certainly hope this industry isn’t shut down based on one accident by one company,” said Alexander. “We understand this is a risky business. There will be accidents.”